Lunatics running the asylum?

English Learning | 22 Mar 2016

Readers often send me e-mails to suggest that I explain words and expressions they have seen but don't fully understand. I welcome suggestions and will try my best to explain words and expressions that are interesting. I received an e-mail from a reader who asked me to explain the meaning of an expression he read in a book. The book used the expression "the lunatic had got hold of the asylum." This is slightly different from the original expression but has the same meaning. The original expression "the lunatics have taken over the asylum" was said by Richard A. Rowland in 1919. He was a movie producer and head of Metro Pictures.

To explain the meaning of the expression, I must first explain the meaning of the words "lunatic" and "asylum". A "lunatic" is a mentally ill person but the word is now politically incorrect. Most people now say "mentally ill" instead of lunatic but the word is still used as a slang word to mean a fool or an idiot. The word "asylum" is used nowadays to mean the protection a country gives to political refugees. The people who seek such protection are called asylum-seekers. Many asylum-seekers have come to Hong Kong recently for political asylum(protection). An asylum also means a hospital for mentally ill people but this word is now also politically incorrect. A hospital for mentally ill people used to be called a lunatic asylum but it is now politically incorrect to use this term.

The expression "the lunatics have taken over the asylum" means a situation in which incapable people are put in charge of responsibilities they are unqualified to handle. In simple terms it means idiots or fools have been put in charge of doing important or complicated things. Richard A. Rowland first used this expression in 1919 when famous movie stars Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford opened the movie company United Artists to protect their work and control their careers. Some Hong Kong people feel the Legislative Council no longer works well because the lunatics have taken over the asylum.

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